The Dream Machine

 

Genre:    Adventure 

Developer:   The Cockroach Inc.

Publisher:    The Sleeping Machine            

Released:  2012-2017              

Requirements:

OS: Windows XP or later
     Processor: 1.8 GHz processor
     Memory: 1 GB RAM
     Hard Drive: 950 MB HD space
     Additional Notes: Mouse recommended

 

 

By flotsam

 

The Dream Machine: Chapters 1 – 5

The Sleeping Machine/Cockroach Inc.

If ever an episodic game cried out that you wait for all the episodes to be released before playing,  this is it. It has been more than six years since Chapter 1 came out, and more than two years since Chapter 5. However with the sixth and final Chapter releasing this May, it seemed like an opportune time to go back to something I had started way back then and then simply lost track of.

The Dream Machine tells the story of Victor and his pregnant wife Alicia, newly moved into an apartment block that is not all it seems. Dreams are a feature from the very opening scene, and Victor soon finds himself having to enter the dreams of the other residents, including his wife, in order to undo what is being done by a machine in the basement.

If you have all five Chapters available to you, you can start wherever you like, but while most of the dreams are self-contained, the narrative is a single one and really should be played from the beginning. Once you begin, you seamlessly transition straight to the next chapter, the only indication that you have moved on being a Chapter title briefly displayed over the game window. You can of course exit and load any new Chapter you like, or any save game you want.

If you load each Chapter directly, you get an introduction with a literary quote reflecting the Chapter’s title, but you never get a “previously on” or anything similar. If you play straight through from the start it hardly matters, but if the last time you played was two years ago, a little update is probably warranted.

There is a lot to like about The Dream Machine, not least of all its design. Made out of clay and cardboard and no doubt some other things, with claymation characters throughout, it is an extraordinary visual achievement. The Grimm quality fairy tale woodland in Chapter 5 is the highpoint, richly detailed and really quite beautiful, made all the more impressive by the number of separate locations and the changes in perspective that are part of the puzzling. While each location is by and large still, there is enough movement and motion here and there, coupled with excellent environmental sound and a varied musical score, to avoid any sense of a lifeless vista. The lumpy visages of the characters just add to the ambience. As far as I was concerned, it was a marvellous construct.

It isn’t all look without substance though, each dream offering an opportunity to have different experiences as part of an overall narrative, each one as different as the other. It can be mundane, touching, thoughtful, gruesome, and voyeuristic, even within the same dream. There are some fantastical elements, especially towards the back end, from tickling a pixie to being ferried inside a vampire stomach. Not everything has that same vibe - in the early Chapters in particular there was much introspection and discussion of personal elements of the lives of the characters, some rather surprising and very real. A conversation Victor has in Chapter 4 about his thoughts on being a father stands out in that regard, and while the main narrative dominated in the last and longest Chapter so far, the final dreamer suggests there may well be some more poignant moments to come.

There is also some very impressive writing throughout the game. It comes to the fore in the more personal moments, but is consistently above average, and at times sparkling. Nothing is spoken though, with every conversation being read. Which I kind of like, because you can imbue the character with whatever voice you like, avoiding any acting let down. It is very wordy, so the strength of the writing helps.

Puzzling involves environmental manipulation, and finding and using inventory items and the clues to know how to use them (recipes, combinations, diagrams, etc). A number of these randomise, ostensibly to enhance the replay aspect, and some are rather good indeed. There are also conversation puzzles, some rather convoluted, but none that can’t be worked through with a bit of tenacity. The first two Chapters are not without their challenges, but are rather gentle and short by comparison to what comes after. Chapter 3 is very much task based, whereas Chapter 4 is essentially one big (and very excellent) environmental manipulation (telling you too much will spoil the puzzle itself).

Chapter 5 is the pinnacle to date, being a lot of both those earlier things, and where two dreams intersect (provided you can work out how) to provide some rather unique and entertaining solves. Size matters a lot here, contributing to the puzzling. It is the biggest Chapter by far in terms of locations, and is the most open in terms of things to do at one time, and there also is a stark contrast between the two dream worlds involved. One is the verdant woodland I mentioned previously, the other a sterile Tron type of place made up of cubist surfaces and laser beams.

It is all point and click, and you drag inventory items to use them. Things to interact with will highlight as you move your mouse around the screen, and you will be able to do a single thing which each of them. It might be examine, it might be pick up, it might be look at, but you don’t choose between them. If you can pick something up, it will then usually be available in the inventory for further examining, or opening if it is a letter or book, and you can then read within the inventory. If you look at something you might also get a close up, enabling further exploration or manipulation. It is all very straightforward.

The game saves automatically and you can also save at will. I did get the occasional game freeze, and I am not alone, but generally exiting and restarting moved it on. Once I had to start from an earlier save, and why that worked I have no idea. You can play on Steam, or through the maker's website (which plays via your browser, but they don’t recommend IE).

I can’t imagine the painstaking effort that must have gone into building this game, which probably accounts for the time over which it has been developed. Wait if you want for the final Chapter, but there is a goodly amount of playing time here, and it will soundly reward your gaming attention.

I played on:

OS: Windows 10, 64 Bit

Processor: Intel i7-6700 4GHz

RAM: 32GB GDDR5

Video card: AMD Radeon RX 470 8192MB

 

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